“Love in the Time of Cholera”: Pandemic Parameters for People and Ponies

As the world slowly prepares to loosen certain pandemic restrictions, a number of people will be resuming offering their equine interaction programs and trying to figure out how best to begin. There are so many things to consider, both in terms of what the experiences themselves might consist of as well as more instrumental factors surrounding physical distancing and minimizing risk of infection.

This article summarizes some ideas that have come from both myself, one of my dear mentors, Deborah Marshall at Generation Farms in Nanaimo, BC, and other sources.  The first portion focuses on infection prevention strategies specific to EAPL, therapeutic/adaptive riding, and other horse-human interaction programs. The second portion focuses more on session-specific ideas and considerations.

1. Infection Prevention Strategies for Equine Interaction Programs

Image copyright Geoff Butler. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

While coronaviruses are common in mammals, and while there has been some evidence of the specific strain of COVID-19 in companion animals, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 between humans and horses appears to be slim. Even so, here are some health and sanitation suggestions derived from a number of governmental and veterinary sources to consider. However, you are ultimately responsible for abiding by the guidelines that are recommended by your local authorities, insurance providers and regulatory/licensing bodies.

Before Appointments

  • Schedule appointments to limit the number of people waiting in common areas.
  • If you have a waiting area, space seats out to a distance of at least 2m (or 6′-7′). Ensure distancing guidelines are also implemented within meeting rooms, therapeutic spaces, etc.
  • Alternately, if weather permits, ask clients to wait in their vehicles and let them know you will come get them when the appointment begins. Or you may designate a specific location on the property that is not in a high traffic area as well (with seating that can easily be sanitized).
  • If providing services at a boarding facility, find out how many other people will be on site and plan accordingly.
  • Have hand sanitizer available in common areas. Also look into a hand washing station. If this is not feasible, consider having individual buckets of clean water with soap available for each client to use.
  • Latex and non-latex gloves are an option to reduce the risk of infection; however, they must be used correctly and are also not the most environmentally-friendly solution.
  • Have antibacterial sprays / cleaners available to clean objects and tools after use.
  • When scheduling clients, ask them if they’ve had any flu-like symptoms related to COVID-19 or if they have been traveling abroad (or even outside of the province or state) or have been in close contact to someone who has. If so, consider rescheduling to a later time or doing the appointment remotely (click here for ideas).
  • Ensure personal protective equipment is available for all team members and consider adding a physical barrier at reception (if relevant).
  • The use of face masks for clients and for team members is recommended. However, masks may get in the way of being able to accurately read facial expressions and for individuals with hearing difficulties to be able to read lips. Consider either face masks that have a clear layer that allows the mouth to be visible or using transparent face shields.
  • Ensure horses are familiar with seeing people with face masks on (and with face shields, if you decide to use these instead) and are comfortable being handled by individuals with personal protective equipment on.
  • Re-screen clients on arrival for symptoms that are consistent with COVID-19 and proceed as described above.

Objects, Horse Equipment and High-Touch Surfaces

  • Remove non-essential items from common areas, especially those that are difficult to clean and sanitize (like magazines, fidget items, toys, books, and so on).
  • Sanitize areas and objects that have a higher frequency of use or of being touched before and after each client.
  • Consider using leather halters, as these may be easier to sanitize than nylon or rope halters.
  • Although it is generally not recommended to leave halters on loose horses for safety reasons, you might consider leaving leather halters on loose horses during sessions to reduce the amount of touching involved (much easier to simply clip a lead rope to a halter than to halter each time, and to switch between a client’s lead rope and a facilitator’s lead rope). Monitor carefully if you go this route.
  • Consider having separate lead ropes for each client that can be washed or sanitized, and/or left untouched for a week before being used again. Avoid having clients use lead ropes and other items that staff, team members, other boarders, etc. use.
  • Each team member ideally will also have separate grooming kits that their clients can use. Only use grooming tools that can easily be washed and sanitized after each use (e.g., rubber scrubby brushes, rubber curry combs, basic hoof picks without brushes, etc.).
  • Only allow team members to open and close gates.
  • Avoid sharing phones, desks, offices, and other objects between team members and with clients.

Horses and Touch

  • Since horses fall under the category of “difficult to sanitize”, some sources are discouraging touch between horses and clients for now.
  • If touch is involved, consider “retiring” horses that participated in one session from having to participate in other sessions the same day to further prevent the risk of transmission between people.
  • Consider not doing any mounted work during this time (if you must, ensure separate tack can be used with each client, and that tack is sanitized after each use).
  • Similarly, consider postponing any table top work (client lying on a treatment table receiving touch work or energy work in the presence of horses) until the risk of infection is reduced.

After Appointments

  • Clean and disinfect common areas and high-touch surfaces and objects after each appointment (e.g., tack, grooming tools, halters, lead ropes, doors, doorknobs, handles, handrails, light switches, toilet flush handles, chairs, seating areas, counter tops, payment processing devices, and so on).
  • All team members must practice effective hand hygiene after every client (wash hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer).
  • If you have a washroom available for clients to use when on the property, ensure there are wipes or sanitizer available on either side of the door so that they can clean their hands before touching the door knobs. Make sure there is a waste basket outside for the last wipe used to be disposed in (if you go that route).

2. Session Ideas and Considerations

Here are a number of ideas (largely over the fence, but could be done within paddocks or pastures) that might guide your work as you return to in-person sessions and groups. PLEASE NOTE: as with any suggestions for interventions, you are under the legal and ethical obligation to work within your scope of practice. Do not attempt any of the ideas below if they are beyond your current scope of practice (or seek out further training or consultation to guide you in implementing them with your clients). I am happy to provide consultation in this regard about these and other topics or to suggest options for further training,

In no particular order:

Exploring Agency and Choice

  • Discuss the human pandemic restrictions and how horses have experienced confinement and isolation ever since domestication (while on some level they cannot truly be compared because of the power differential and speciesism at play, there are still some powerful parallels that can be explored). To paraphrase Peter Levine, humans and horses are both “captive” species, a similarity that is all the more obvious during these challenging times.
  • When exploring the following questions, be mindful of thresholds of tolerance as well as how what normally can be a resource can very quickly become over-coupled with activation during times like these.
    • Within imposed parameters, how do we find agency and freedom? How do horses do this? 
    • Where is there still choice when many things seem beyond individual control?
    • What choices can be made to improve horse and human circumstances within imposed parameters?
    • Think of a time when you felt a sense of freedom, or felt most like yourself. What happens inside when you connect with that?
    • What gets in the way of bringing awareness to or acting on agency? Consider external and internal factors.
  • Signs there may be thwarted impulses towards self-protection, nourishment, social connection or fulfillment that come up when considering these questions include: minimizing or dismissing resources or “goodness”; changing topics to focus on what’s not possible or not working; sudden surge of sadness or tears about what isn’t or wasn’t available; resistance towards or anger at the topic (protective response to prevent feelings of overwhelm, grief, longing, disappointment, fear, attachment cry, etc.); fidgeting; collapsed body posture; providing a disconnected or intellectualized response; having difficulty recalling resources, etc.
  • If a resource is now “contaminated” with fear, loss and longing for closeness or touch: Take the time to build the capacity to track through the pendulation between the goodness of a resource (expansion), the swing into activation (contraction), and the deactivation of the charge (expansion). Check the client’s experience of the resource again after moving through subsequent pendulations one at a time; often the activation is experienced less intensely each time, and can at times dissipate entirely.

Neuroception of Safety for the Body and Parts of Self

  • The pandemic is a time of heightened neuroception of danger and life threat. The novel coronavirus is like invisible glitter; it has the potential to be anywhere, but it is impossible to see.
  • With nervous systems exhausted from chronic managing of find, fawn, fight and flight responses, or stuck in freeze, fold and fragmentation, offer opportunities to orient to safety cues in the present moment. Invite the client to take those in as if savouring a nourishing meal, as best as possible. Some people only have a narrow capacity for taking in nourishment (due to histories of deprivation or neglect, shame, or low self-worth), so this may need to be titrated.
  • This helps shift the nervous system from defensive orienting to exploratory orienting (waking up the ventral vagal social engagement system, which is a softer brake on the heart and a more sustainable state).
  • Adapt Yvonne Dolan’s 54321 exercise to add in a focus on what their eyes like to see or are drawn to, what their ears like to hear or are drawn to listening to in the moment, and what their tactile sense likes to touch or experience. What happens inside when they bring their awareness not only to safety cues but also what is appealing to them? Pay close attention to shifts in body posture and softening or brightening of facial expression.
  • An additional orienting practice is described here (scroll down for the Somatic Resourcing handout).
  • When orienting to safety or simply being in the moment, place intentional attention on the felt sense of coherence…
    • Within oneself: areas of flow and fluidity in the body; inner harmony between “parts”; sense of agency in the body (“I can!”) à can include self-touch / self-nurturing gestures
    • In relationships: sense ofconnectedness, resonance, support
    • In the environment: visual, auditory, tactileand other sensory input that is settling, soothing, enlivening, supportive, or elicits some other experience of connection and goodness
  • Supporting present time orientation helps one’s adult Self / witness to come online. This is especially useful for:
    • Recognizing when one has “blended with” (or been taken over by) a “part” of oneself
    • Stabilizing distress and inner conflicts / binds through slowing down, presencing, inquiry and nurturing
    • Catching early somatic sequences sooner before they’re beyond threshold
    • Tracking pendulations of activation-deactivation to grow the window of tolerance and restore a sense of inner rhythm and flow
    • Helping protector parts and wounded / distressed parts by building relationship between them and the adult Self
    • Imagining safe places and resources for these parts, and removing them from where they are trapped in trauma time within the inner landscape of memory (the “inscape“) to bring them either to present time (orienting parts) or to the new imagined safe place.

Connection Without Proximity

Image copyright My Safety Sign. Click to order.
  • Cultivate opportunities for being seen and heard, feeling felt, and getting gotten… at a distance.
  • Being able to see horses but not get close or touch can be an opportunity to work with grief and loss, object constancy and the idea of being in connection while apart physically.
  • This can also be explored between facilitator(s) and client through placing intentional attention on the felt sense experience of being seen and feeling felt when approaching, when spending time together while at a certain distance, and when departing. Can the client sense into the attunement and resonance at a distance? How do they know? What changes inside when they put their attention on the relational “pinging”? Can be done using words to convey each person’s inner experience or without.
    • Note: Working with activation around approaching / being approached or departing / another being departing can be delicate and nuanced. Proceed slowly and seek consultation if necessary if you lack the somatic and relational repair skills to navigate this carefully.
  • Explore the intentional matching or mimicking of postures, expressions, gestures and movements of another person or a horse at a safe distance away. This can be slow, smooth, and fluid, or can be energetic and playful. If doing this with a horse, notice if the horse “gets it” and how you can tell. What happens in these moments of shared recognition? (thanks to Katarina Felicia Lundgren and Emily Kieson of the MiMer Centre).
  • Notice or point out moments of unconscious synchrony of postures, expressions, gestures and movements. What shifts inside when placing one’s attention on that?
  • Drumming, clapping or singing together while 2m or 6′ apart (thanks to Natural Lifemanship). If trained in Somatic Experiencing®, explore the “voo” breath together in synchrony while sitting or standing apart and track the resonance in your shared experience of the vocal toning.
  • Going on an intentional walk in silence with a partner, relying on non-verbal communication and attunement to determine the pace and direction. An alternative would be to include the exploration of each other’s attractions, with one person leading towards something they are attracted to, spending time together noticing the thing and tracking the shared felt sense experience of it, then switching to the other person who leads towards what attracts them (and back and forth for a set amount of time). Notice moments of disconnection, how you catch them, and what restores connection.
  • Seated or walking mindfulness practice outside the paddocks or in the pasture with the horses.
  • Some horses in a round pen or smaller area will connect strongly and move with people who are on the outside. You or your equine professional may be in with the horse as a support, guide, as the client remains on the outside, exploring connection and movement with a boundary.

Object Constancy

  • Invite the client to recall a memory of a moment of connection with a horse, from past sessions or from during the existing session. Vivify the image with as much felt sense and sensory detail as possible. Invite the client to notice what happens inside when bringing attention to this memory. This can be practiced after session as well as an internalized resource.
    • Can also do this in relation to people, archetypal or spiritual resources (God, “wise woman” guide, angels, ancestors, messenger animals, etc.)
    • Can also do this in relation to specific memories where the client felt a sense of goodness (calm, aliveness, triumph, settled, whole, confident, etc.)
  • Invite the client to journal, draw or paint about an experience from the session as a way to further internalize the experience as a resource they can recall when needed.
  • If this is too challenging, back things up a step and play Kim’s Game. This practice is often used in Scouting and Guiding to help develop memory recall and attention to detail. A version of this is taught in Somatic Experiencing®, where a client engages with an object that reminds them of a particular moment in time that is associated with goodness. Invite the client to study the object’s details (colours, shape, texture, weight, temperature, scent, etc.), then close their eyes and recall the object with as much detail as possible, repeating until they have the ability to recall the object without looking at it.
    • Explore differences between the client’s ability to recall a neutral object and one that holds a particular memory.
    • Explore differences between the client’s ability to recall a cherished horse or one they don’t know very well.

Exploring Touch

  • Working with touch is a scope of practice in and of itself. If working with touch is not within your scope, then focus instead on exploring consensual touch between clients and horses.
  • Remember that clients as primates have different touch needs than horses do, and may be experiencing touch deprivation as a result of pandemic physical distancing directives. Horses, on the other hand, may not experience the same urgency around needing touch and proximity in the same way. This still does not justify forcing touch on horses for the client to get their needs for touch met.
  • The relationship between client and horse is still paramount, and navigating different boundaries and desires for touch and proximity between them offers ample opportunities to work with the underlying activation around unmet or differing needs and expectations in human relationships during these challenging times.
    • Notice and track through activation and deactivation in relation to need for touch not being reciprocated.
    • Shame and embarrassment around needs and distress are crucial to work with to support a corrective emotional, somatic and relational experience of compassion and nurturing.
    • Explore which “parts” of self are sensing the most urgency around receiving touch from another. Do those parts know there’s an adult Self available to validate those needs and provide soothing, nurturing or containing touch?
    • What supports or internal resources would be helpful to support these more distressed “parts” so that the adult Self is the one to negotiate around touch needs in relationship?